“Not tonight,” he said.
“But why? You’re wrong!” cried Josephine.
He dropped his head and became oblivious.
“Well!” said Cyril Scott, rising at last with a bored exclamation. “I think I’ll retire.”
“Will you?” said Julia, also rising. “You’ll find your candle outside.”
She went out. Scott bade good night, and followed her. The four people remained in the room, quite silent. Then Robert rose and began to walk about, agitated.
“Don’t you go back to ’em. Have a night out. You stop here tonight,” Jim said suddenly, in a quiet intimate tone.
The stranger turned his head and looked at him, considering.
“Yes?” he said. He seemed to be smiling coldly.
“Oh, but!” cried Josephine. “Your wife and your children! Won’t they be awfully bothered? Isn’t it awfully unkind to them?”
She rose in her eagerness. He sat turning up his face to her. She could not understand his expression.
“Won’t you go home to them?” she said, hysterical.
“Not tonight,” he replied quietly, again smiling.
“You’re wrong!” she cried. “You’re wrong!” And so she hurried out of the room in tears.
“Er—what bed do you propose to put him in?” asked Robert rather officer-like.
“Don’t propose at all, my lad,” replied Jim, ironically—he did not like Robert. Then to the stranger he said:
“You’ll be all right on the couch in my room?—it’s a good couch, big enough, plenty of rugs—” His voice was easy and intimate.
Aaron looked at him, and nodded.
They had another drink each, and at last the two set off, rather stumbling, upstairs. Aaron carried his bowler hat with him.
Robert remained pacing in the drawing-room for some time. Then he went out, to return in a little while. He extinguished the lamps and saw that the fire was safe. Then he went to fasten the window-doors securely. Outside he saw the uncanny glimmer of candles across the lawn. He had half a mind to go out and extinguish them—but he did not. So he went upstairs and the house was quiet. Faint crumbs of snow were falling outside.
When Jim woke in the morning Aaron had gone. Only on the floor were two packets of Christmas-tree candles, fallen from the stranger’s pockets. He had gone through the drawing-room door, as he had come. The housemaid said that while she was cleaning the grate in the dining-room she heard someone go into the drawing-room: a parlour-maid had even seen someone come out of Jim’s bedroom. But they had both thought it was Jim himself, for he was an unsettled house mate.
There was a thin film of snow, a lovely Christmas morning.
“The pillar of salt”
Our story will not yet see daylight. A few days after Christmas, Aaron sat in the open shed at the bottom of his own garden, looking out on the rainy darkness. No one knew he was there. It was some time after six in the evening.